PRAGUE — The Blackhawks preached the importance of an improved defensive structure throughout the preseason.
In their first game of the regular season, they didn’t even give themselves a chance to display it.
A flood of self-inflicted turnovers doomed the Hawks in their 4-3 loss to the Flyers on Friday.
They gifted speedy Philadelphia with waves of chances in transition, leaving the defensemen with no time to find their positions.
“You don’t have your structure,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “That couple of seconds right after, if you misplay the puck or they steal it or whatever, it’s tough to defend. We put ourselves in bad spots repeatedly.”
Turnovers led directly to two of the Flyers’ goals.
Rookie Dennis Gilbert misplayed the puck at the defensive blue line, leading to Travis Konecny’s first goal, and veteran Duncan Keith gave it away at the offensive blue line before Konecny’s second score.
But the problem was more pervasive than just those incidents. The Flyers had 31 scoring chances to the Hawks’ 15, a horrible ratio even by last season’s standards.
For all the hype after the summer additions and training camp, the Hawks opened 2019-20 looking like the same sluggish, mistake-prone, over-the-hill squad they have been the last two seasons.
“We were turning pucks over at the blue [line], not getting the changes we needed, all the little things we talk about that help you conserve energy,” Jonathan Toews said. “You get one good shift, you feed off it. We weren’t doing that. We let them take control of the game.”
The Hawks were dangerous offensively, if not particularly dominant.
Patrick Kane had three points, including a goal with 2:07 left that gave the Hawks late life and kept the sold-out Czech crowd engaged. Alex DeBrincat earlier had ripped a pretty one-timer on the power play, and enigmatic Alex Nylander had begun his Hawks tenure by scoring the team’s first goal.
“It’s nice always to get the first goal out of the way quickly and build off it,” Nylander said. “I’ve just got to keep going and keep shooting.”
Scoring was never a worry, though. Goaltending wasn’t, either — and although Corey Crawford wasn’t perfect, he made some big saves to keep the Hawks competitive in what could’ve turned into a rout.
The issue was the defense. And that unit didn’t show well at all.
“There’s going to be times in the game where it’s not going your way,” Colliton said. “I don’t think we made many plays, especially in the second period. But we’ve got to find a way to limit the damage, and I thought we [were] a bit more exposed defensively.”
Grasping at straws, Colliton eventually switched up the defensive pairings, putting Keith with Slater Koekkoek (who inadvertently provided the Flyers with their second goal after a ricochet off his chest) and Gilbert with Erik Gustafsson and preserving only the Olli Maatta-Brent Seabrook duo. Not even that shakeup worked because the Flyers kept attacking in waves.
The Hawks will have an unprecedented seven days to stew over the loss before their home opener against the Sharks. But they’ll also have seven days to readjust to Central Time and the United Center’s hard surface (the ice at Prague’s 02 Arena was a problem all week), and they’ll potentially get injured defensemen Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy back, too.
“You’re excited, and you want to come out and start the season off with a bang, but the good news is there’s 81 more,” Toews said.